Sensational news! Pyongyang has another superweapon! On December 10, Kim Jong-un delivered a speech at the country’s first weapons factory in the Phyongchon District of Pyongyang, which commenced operations in 1945. Today the factory is regarded as the site of special historical significance and pride. The leader’s speech was naturally dedicated to the achievements of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the military industry. The North Korean leader made a remark during his speech saying that the country had managed to become “a powerful nuclear weapons state ready to detonate a self-reliant A-bomb and H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation.
By the time the original utterance made by the North Korean leader had been translated (with some of its meaning ‘lost’), it sounded almost as alarming as “Pyongyang is about to blow up an H-bomb!” Therefore, it would be sensible to explain to the readers what it takes to create an A- or an H-bomb and what phases must be completed before one can claim that they have such a weapon.
Phase one. Development. Contrary to the opinion of some “experts,” many nuclear technologies are no longer a secret. This is especially true in the case of early samples of nuclear weapons, like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. All it would really take to assemble such a bomb is the determination of the leadership of a country and the relevant level of development of the industrial base and human resources. Today about forty countries, including Egypt and Brazil have the capabilities to complete the task. As for the developed states like Japan or South Korea that already have a nuclear power industry, it would take them no longer than a year or two to accomplish the task because it is much easier to convert a civilian nuclear program into a military one than to develop a military nuclear program from scratch.
Phase two. Tests. It is not enough to just build a weapon. It has to be tested to assure that it will go off at the right time. North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, each resulting in a serious political crisis and being regarded as some sort of a warning in that context. Each test has also put a strain on Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing and Moscow. Whether the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be willing to make such a bold move in the current situation is an issue that remains controversial.
We should also keep in mind that the task of testing an H-bomb is technically more complex in comparison to the procedure for an A-bomb. It might require a larger testing site, and North Korea is not blessed with its own archipelago like Novaya Zemlya (Russia) where it can safely blow up whatever weapon it wishes.
Phase three. Finalization and building of a bomb. Let’s suppose that a nuclear explosive device already exists, yet it is not a bomb yet. At this stage, the design is usually still insufficient for the nuclear explosive device to be used in an air bomb or a missile warhead. What does that mean? Well that it can be used but only in the territory of the country and only if the army can lure their enemies as close as possible to the “weapon” and then blow it up. Hypothetically, this strategy can be used as the last resort in a defensive war, but not in an offensive or any other way. It would be required first, to downsize the explosive device through a series of operations and second, to decide by what means it can be delivered to the enemy’s territory.
North Koreans are, apparently, working on these issues. They have recently test-launched or simulated a launch of a missile from a submarine. However, it would be premature for them to claim that they have an A- or H-bomb since they have not yet completed the required number of launches that would guarantee that the missile would deliver the A-bomb warhead to its target. It is also important to remember that the launches the North conducted were only to test the flight of the missile, but not its landing. The same is true for the launches of a satellite, which critics of North Korea referred to as “the launches of a ballistic missile.” (This issue has already been covered in our magazine.)
Phase four. Batch production. One experimental sample, of course, indicates some definite progress, but it does not change the overall situation. To maintain the balance of power, it would be necessary to organize a mass production of the weapon to keep up with the potential opponent that already has more powerful sea and air forces (which means that chances are high that a nuclear missile would be intercepted before it reached its target). But mass production of A-bomb warheads is a task at a whole other technical level.
Apparently, both the North Korean nuclear and its missile programs are in the second or at best the third phase of their development at the moment. It seems, however, that the North Korean propaganda machine, targeting the internal audience, has a tendency toward exaggeration of the country’s military potential. South Korean military analysts, in turn, often contribute to the creation of myths alleging that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea possesses weapons of the “Star Wars” type just to pressure their government into allocating extra money to fight the “notorious North Koreans,” or to cover up their own blunders. For example, the topic of an ion gun capable of disabling any electronic devices has been circulating in the press. All reasonable readers understand that this story is akin to the tales appearing from time to time in the press boggling the minds of the public with claims that North Korean hackers are so mighty that they can disable electric teapots, irons and computers not connected to the Internet. But such outright fanning of anti-North Korean sentiment is good only for emotional manipulation and wangling extra money for the alleged countering of “dangerous programs.”
It is clear that North Korea is theoretically capable of the developing an H-bomb. However when making any claims in this area, North Korea should always clarify that it is “just working on it,” since most probably it is still at the beginning and not at the end of the path to its successful implementation.
That was the reason for the majority of military and technical experts as well as experts specializing in North Korean studies to skeptically assess the alarmist statements because they all believe that up until now North Korea has (at best) advanced to the development of technologies required to build nuclear and hydrogen bombs. However, it should be noted that the term “H-bomb” implies a range of weapons, some of which are rather basic, and well within the current level of North Korean technical and scientific development. Thus North Korea could already implement some of them. Most probably, Pyongyang has some prototype under construction, but only tests can confirm its readiness: If explosion during future tests are much more powerful in comparison to the last test, that could service as an indicator that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea indeed has an H-bomb.
A representative of South Korean reconnaissance services said that his department believes that North Korea does not have the technologies necessary to produce an H-bomb since it is still struggling with the production of a compact A-bomb warhead. First deputy chairperson of the Council of the Federation Committee on Defense and Security Franz Klintsevich has called the statement made by Kim Jong-un a bluff. “Today it is practically impossible to build a thermonuclear weapon in secret from the rest of the world.”
In fact, North Korea has repeatedly claimed that it possesses or is on the brink of possessing some sort of a new weapon. Actually, at some point these claims turned into an amusing confusion when mass media reported that North Koreans have something much more powerful than an A-bomb and later it turned out that they were talking about their selfless devotion to their leader, unshakable morale, and the unity of the army and people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
At this point, we just have to wait for new tests to be able to make a conclusion based on their results.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”